In 2020, the United States was facing two crises: the devastating Coronavirus pandemic, and the realization that systemic racism is prevalent and not enough progress has been made since the Civil Rights movement.

Consumers realized racism is everywhere. The lack of diversity in senior level positions, the absence of education on African American studies, and the assumptions on what being a Black person in the United States means. After pivotal moments in history, some significant changes usually take place. So in the last couple of years, there’s been an increase in diversity, equity, and inclusion in the world of fashion. Many fashion companies have realized that these are values that society is seeking, their consumers are demanding, and their sales objectives require.

From fashion runways led by black designers and featuring black models, to black businesses getting global exposure, the fashion industry is starting to see show how an inclusive fashion world might look like.  

In Political Fashion, we are taking a look at Black talents, which led the way to more open doors for Black talent entering the fashion industry. We recognize their courage to be leaders in the work they did or are still doing, inspiring many people of color around the world who want to enter the world of fashion. 

Ann Lowe

Ann Cole Lewis was the first African American noted to become a fashion designer. Image Courtesy of Vogue. 

Ann Cole Lowe is, for many historians, considered the first African American fashion designer. Lowe grew up being the great granddaughter of an enslaved woman and a plant-owner from Alabama. Lowe’s grandmother and mother were both seamstresses and taught her the basics of sewing, tailoring, and patternmaking. 

Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress was created by a Black fashion designer. Image Courtesy of Vogue Archives. 

For over five decades, Ann Cole Lewis worked as a fashion designer for upper-class women. Her commissioned work made it to Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, and other high fashion stores. The most famous piece of work created by Ann Cole Lewis is the bridal gown for Jacqueline Bouvier (Jackie Kennedy) for her wedding to John F. Kennedy. To this date, this dress has been referenced as one of the best bridal gowns of all time. The Times published a full story on this wedding, describing the reception, the guests, and the bridal gown. However, they never mentioned the name of the designer. Years later, the media gave credit to Ann Cole Lewis for the work she did on this dress that is now part of American history. 

Aurora James

Aurora James is a Canadian fashion designer and activist. Image Courtesy of Aurora James. 

Director and founder of Brother Vellies, James discovered the Veldskoen shoes during a trip to South Africa back in 2013. Ever since she has focused on creating an international business that celebrates the craftsmanship of artisans from all over the world. 

After the protests for the murder of George Floyd quickly developed across the United States and in many parts of the world, Aurora James developed a project called the Fifteen Percent Pledge. 

The Fifteen Percent Pledge is a non-profit organization that encourages businesses to dedicate 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses since Black people represent 15% of the population. Ever since the non-profit organization started, they’ve been able to shift over 10 billion dollars to black-owned businesses!

 James’s project has become so widely known that major retailers have made this pledge. Some of these businesses include Nordstrom, Macy’s, Ulta Beauty, Sephora, Vogue, InStyle, J.Crew, and Madewell.

Aurora James is the designer who created the Tax the Rich dress. Image Courtesy of Aurora James. 

Aurora James is also the creative mind of one of the most Political Fashion dresses in recent years. The dress that Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore to the Met Gala in September of 2021 read “Tax the Rich” and triggered a Google search for this phrase exponentially as quickly as the Representative hit the carpet. Aurora James currently lives in New York, and made and lent this dress to AOC so she could wear it for the Met Steps. 

Brandice Daniel

Memphis native, Brandice Daniel is the CEO & Founder of Harlem’s Fashion Row. Image Courtesy of Vogue. 

Brandice Daniel is the founder and CEO of Harlem’s Fashion Row, a business that she established in 2007 and that works as a bridge between brands and people of color in the fashion industry. The result of these connections is many, and both parties end up winning! 

There are collaborations, capsule collections, events, recruitments, and so much more. Harlem’s Fashion show has collaborated with huge stores like Macy’s and Target, bringing special attention to the visibility of talent by people of color and introducing it to the mass market. Daniel started talking about race in the fashion industry way before people were ready to talk about it. In fact, there are still many fashion companies that are not having these conversations yet. Daniel’s important work has created many meaningful moments in fashion during the last decade. She coordinated a Nike-sponsored show co-sponsored by Lebron James for Black female designers. She also connected Black designers to design the clothes of American girl dolls and worked heavily with Janie and Jack to make a children’s wear fashion collection created by Black talent. Harlem’s Fashion Row has helped as a meaningful connector between talent and fashion brands. 

Olivier Rousteing

Credited with bringing an Asian influence to Balmain, Olivier Rousteing has served as Creative Director of this French fashion house for over 11 years. Image Courtesy of Olivier Rousteing.

Growing up, Rousteing saw Michael Jackson as an idol. He was the reason why Rousteing became interested in pop culture. In the end, the King of Pop is a big example of how fashion expresses your personality. One influences fashion, and fashion influences you.

In 2011, Rousteing became the Creative Director of Balmain. He was 25 years old when he was assigned the responsibility of leading the creations for this French fashion house. Rousteing has stated that he believes one of his biggest strengths is his experience as an adopted child. He grew up with the fear that his parents would take him back to the orphanage, and this fear has been an ongoing motivation to seek inclusion in the work he creates as a fashion designer.

Embellishments by Rousteing’s creative mind are made from anything from plastics to metals. Image Courtesy of Balmain.

Rousteing has dressed a number of widely known figures like Beyonce, Michelle Obama, Kardashian, Jenners, and Adele. Rousteing has been referred to as an “influencer-designer,” as his over 9 million followers help him and Balmain as a brand get global visibility and close attention to the work process of the fashion designer. 

Virgil Abloh

Virgil Abloh’s designs were sold around the world and introduced a young and fresh perspective to Louis Vuitton. Image Courtesy of CNN. 

Some people in the world of fashion not only open doors for themselves but leave a legacy that helps to open doors for future generations to come. Virgil Abloh was born in 1980 to Ghanaian immigrants. He grew up in Illinois under the influence of hip-hop and skate culture. At a very young age, he got an internship at Fendi and later founded his own brand Off-White. A fashion brand that merged streetwear and luxury and made it to the styling top choices for celebrities like Serena Williams, Ariana Grande, Adam Levine, Ryan Reynolds, Naomi Campbell, the Jenners, and many more. 

Virgil Abloh became the first Black person to lead a French high fashion brand when he became the artistic director of Louis Vuitton. The relationship between Abloh and the French fashion house made Louis Vuitton particularly relevant for young generations and reinterpreted its long history with contemporary designs that were at times controversial but also very popular.

Spike Lee became the first black director to be the president of the Cannes Film Festival Grand Jury. This moment became even more special for Black talent, as he showed up to the red carpet wearing clothes designed by Virgil Abloh for Louis Vuitton. Image Courtesy of Getty Images. 

Abloh died at the age of 41 due to cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare type of cancer. His work marks a before and after in the world of fashion, particularly in the high fashion world where people of color rarely have a seat on the table. 

Winnie Harlow

Winnie Harlow is a Canadian fashion model and spokesperson on vitiligo. Image Courtesy of Hola!

For more than two hundred years, black people’s bodies were seen as ugly. Their skin, their hair, their lips, their hands, their eyes, were not portrayed in fashion magazines or mass media, therefore they were not associated with beauty, which created a strong sense of unworthiness. 

Many fashion critics claim that black models on a runway don’t really contribute to diversity in fashion, because true diversity must be shown on executive and senior level positions in fashion companies, not just in the more visual side of a fashion brand. But this doesn’t mean that diversity on the runway is not relevant. After all, many black kids grow up with the dream of becoming models, and a real connection and sense of worthiness happens when you see someone who looks like you in an advertisement for a fashion brand in a bus stop, in Times Square, or on the cover of a magazine. 

Fortunately, there are now dozens of black models walking on fashion runways all over the world. So Political Fashion wants to highlight the career of one model who didn’t just struggle with racism in her modeling career, but also with prejudices about her skin condition. 

3.7 million people in the U.S. have vitiligo, and over 100 million people worldwide. 

Winnie Harlow recalls that during her childhood, she was alienated even by people who were not trying to alienate her intentionally. For instance, her mom would cover her face with makeup for family photos, makeup that belonged to her mother and that was significantly darker than Harlow’s skin. So in the photos that she has of her as a kid, she isn’t truly herself. 

This was a challenge that she has been facing to this day, but these alienations didn’t stop her from starting her career as a fashion model. In 2014, she gained significant media attention after being a contestant on America’s Next Top Model. Harlow became the brand representative of the Spanish fashion brand Desigual. After that, her career spiked, and she has been walking on runways all over the world including shows by Marc Jacobs, Schiaparelli, Coach, Victoria’s Secret, and many others.